It is the time-worn plot of many movies in the Philippines. A young woman from an impoverished background dreams of lifting her family from poverty, gets a job as an overseas domestic helper but ends up getting abuse by her employer. The employer forces her to work 12 hours a day, gives her leftover food, and makes her sleep on the floor.
Then, a tragedy of an unspeakable nature happens. Her family is at the airport, wailing in grief as a coffin bearing her body is wheeled out of the cargo hold of the plane.
This plot happens again and again in the real lives of many Filipinos, who worked as household help or overseas domestic helpers.
Killed by employers
In January 2022, the body of Filipino domestic worker Julleebee Ranara, 35, was found buried in a Kuwaiti desert. Based on autopsy reports, the body was burned and bore marks of physical abuse. She was also a few weeks pregnant.
The suspect behind her killing was the 17-year-old son of her employers. Her remains were repatriated on January 27, and she was buried February 7.
The last three years have seen murders of other Filipino domestic workers at the hands of their employers. Among others, Joanna Daniela Demafelis was killed in 2018; Constancia Lago Dayag in 2019, and Jeanelyn Villavende in 2019.
Joanna, 29, was found inside a freezer in an abandoned apartment in the Al Shaab district of Kuwait, her body in a sitting position with arms crossed. Prior to this discovery, her family, back in an agricultural community in Iloilo in Southern Philippines, had not heard from her in two years.
Autopsy reports revealed that Joanna had been dead for over a year, and she suffered broken ribs and internal bleeding before she died. She was killed by her employers, Mouna Ali Hassoun and her husband Nader Essam Assaf.
Constancia, 47, was physically and sexually assaulted before she was killed. The circumstances of her death in the hands of her employers were so horrific that the Philippine government temporarily stopped the deployment of Filipinos to Kuwait in January 2020. The forensic report stated that a cucumber had been forced inside her vulva. She was rushed to the hospital, but she was declared dead on arrival.
Jeanelyn, 26, was raped and brutally beaten to death in Kuwait. Local authorities stated in the official autopsy report that she died of “acute failure of heart and respiration as a result of shock and multiple injuries in the vascular nervous system.”
After conducting its own autopsy, the Philippines’ own National Bureau of Investigation wrote in its report that her body was missing a brain, heart, and other organs.
Migrante International, the biggest migrant support organization in the Philippines with chapters in the Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia, said the deaths of Jubellee, Joanna, Constancia and Jeanelyn were but a few in a long list of Filipino domestic workers killed overseas.
Migrante vice-president Arman Hernando said the deaths of Julleebee, Joanna, Constancia and Jeanelyn were but a few in a long list of Filipino domestic workers killed overseas. The list of those who survived but had endured hardship such as rape, however, was much longer.
“When Filipinos get on the plane to work abroad especially in the Middle East, they are already putting their lives at risk. They know this, but they go on anyway because their dreams to help their families are stronger,” said Hernando.
A history of labor export
In the 1970s, the Philippines, led by ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, launched its overseas employment program and encouraged Filipinos to work in the Middle East. For the last 30 years, Filipino women have been leaving their families behind to work overseas as domestic helpers in the Middle East, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Now, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos sought to find work abroad.
The Philippine government has benefited greatly from this labor export program because of the remittances the Filipinos sent back home to their families, so much so that this sector has become a significant contribution to the economy.
According to a 2021 World Bank report, the Philippines remained the fourth remittance recipient after India, China, and Mexico. As of 2021, Filipino overseas workers had sent approximately US$2.7 billion back home.
By 2019, the total number of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), based on data from the Philippine government, have reached 2.2 million. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), most of them were contractual workers. While 96.8 percent signed employment contracts, 3.2 percent worked without any contract. Because of the pandemic the number of OFWs fell to 1.77 million in 2020.
The majority of OFWs were in Asia and the Pacific. The region employed 50.6 percent of all domestic workers. Estimates from the International Labor Organization showed almost 24.7 percent were in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
In the meantime, the three countries that showed the highest proportion of female Filipino domestic workers in the East Asia region were Hong Kong (9.7 percent), Taiwan (4.1 percent) and Japan (1.4 percent).
More Filipinos, however, chose to work in the Middle East because of fewer working restrictions. The wages were lower, but many of them would move on to the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom.
Globally, the largest number of Filipino domestic workers was in the Middle East, with 65 percent in Saudi Arabia (27.2 percent of the total), followed by the United Arab Emirates (16.4 percent), Kuwait (9.9 percent), and Qatar (5.9 percent).
The usual monthly salary of a domestic helper in Kuwait ranges from KD110 to KD120 (P17,000 to P20,000 or US$312 to US$367). In Hong Kong, salaries are higher at HK$4,730 monthly, equivalent to P35,475 or US$652.
The Kafala system
While the visa policies in the Middle East may be easier to navigate for foreigners seeking jobs, the drawbacks are also heavier. In almost every country in the Middle East, these regulations are enforced through the Kafala (sponsorship) system, first established in the 1960s and 70s as a means to manage employer-migrant worker relationships.
Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion explained that under the Kafala system, the migrant worker can only work with one employer who is also their sponsor. An employer (kafeel) or local company must sponsor foreign workers; this binds worker’s migration status and residency to them legally until the end of the contract.
“We have said it time and again, the Kafala system violates human rights and international labor standards in many ways, and it opens the floodgates to many cases of exploitation and abuse. If a foreign domestic worker wants to leave their employers when they are abusive, the worker cannot just leave to find another employer. She is bound by contract to that employer and she can’t unilaterally break that,” she said.
In the case that a domestic workers’ employer allows her to leave, she will have to leave the country and return to the Philippines. Concepcion said this has happened in so many cases.
“There are thousands of Filipinos in shelters all over the Middle East who left their employers but cannot return home because they had neither money for plane tickets nor savings,” she said.
Concepcion admitted that some Middle Eastern countries like Qatar have amended their foreign worker laws, like adopting equitable minimum wage and taking out some of the more problematic requirements, for example the compulsory employer’s permission.
“On the whole, however, some countries still keep the Kafala system and continue the exploitative employment practices,” she said. She added that through the years, Migrante International and its allied groups supporting migrant workers have documented literally thousands of cases of abuse experienced by Filipino domestic workers.
“Many arrived at their destinations and ended up working under slave-like conditions. Their employers forced them to work for 12 hours, gave them no room where they could rest,” Concepcion said. “We documented these cases and demanded reforms from both the Philippine government and the host countries’ authorities, but nothing really changes,” she said.
A former domestic worker, Sally, had recently returned from Kuwait. She came back to the Philippines October 2022 after working in Kuwait only for six months.
“My employers were cruel – they said I made frequent mistakes and beat me often because of them. They also denied me my wages, saying I didn’t deserve them since they already fed me and let me slept in their house. It was like being in hell,” she said tearfully.
When Sally said she wanted to leave, thankfully, her employers allowed her to. She only had enough money for her return flight and nothing else to show for her six-month ordeal.
“There were so many of us who suffered in Kuwait and in the UAE. We shared the same stories, experienced the same horrors. We sacrificed so much, spent so much money upfront to work abroad so we could earn enough to support our loved ones, but it all ended up nowhere. Very, very few of us received the financial assistance the government promised when we got home,” she said.
Based on reports, there were 268,000 Filipinos in Kuwait, with 195,000 working as domestic workers.
Poor living conditions of shelters
Rashilda Leonilda, chairperson of the Sandigan ng mga Domestic Workers sa Gitnang Silangan (Unity of Domestic Workers in the Middle East), said the Philippine government and its agencies only take action when a Filipino dies under mysterious or violent circumstances.
“The government says there are only 400 Filipinos in the repatriation shelters. I know for a fact that there are thousands more, and they are all suffering,” she said.
Leonilda said she has experienced staying in one of the shelters and the conditions there were terrible.
“The food they gave us was barely edible, the rooms were dirty and so congested that people slept sitting against walls. It also took forever for the Philippine migration authorities to process our documents so we could return home – some of the domestic workers had been in the shelters for as long as three years,” she said.
The poor conditions of the shelters coupled with the desperation inherent in their circumstances served to cause many residents to become suicidal.
“There were even others who developed mental problems because of extreme depression,” she said.
There are 24 Philippine migrant workers’ offices (MWOs) shelters worldwide, 14 of which are in the Middle East. Leonilda said in the one that she stayed in, there were insufficient water supplies.
“We drank water from the toilet, we rarely took baths or changed our clothes. We hardly saw staff from the Philippine embassy – they never visited us or gave assistance,” she said.
Migrante’s Hernando said based on OFW accounts, at least 2,000 others remained in Kuwaiti government shelters, deportation centers and other facilities. They wanted to return home but they could not “due to the Philippine government’s slow action and lack of coordination with Kuwaiti government.”
Another Filipino domestic worker, Roslee, said she was abused by her former employers in Saudi Arabia. After a year, she managed to escape from their house and went to a shelter ran by Philippine authorities.
“My recruitment agency did not help me, and staying at the shelter was so hard because everyone there was also suffering like me. I could only pray every day that my papers to return home would come through as soon as possible. There were so many delays,” she said.
Repeated appeals for help
Migrante International repeatedly appealed to different Philippine agencies to impose more stringent measures to protect OFWs. In the case of the latest victim Jubellee, Migrante said the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait should be more alert and attentive to cries for help, and to be proactive to extend repatriation and other services for distressed OFWs.
“After all this time and after so many cases of Filipinos being exploited, raped and killed, it is long overdue that investigations be made regarding the conduct of duty of Philippine officials in Kuwait,” the group said.
Based on data from the Statista Research Department, almost 5,000 cases of maltreatment of OFWs were reported in 2020. The majority of the cases, i.e., 4,302, were from the Middle East. That same year, the Philippines sent 560,000 OFWs to the region.
As of this writing, the Philippines has announced a deployment ban to Kuwait, meaning Filipino workers will not be allowed to go to Kuwait to work. Senator Raffy Tulfo said it is time the Philippines should take a firm stand against violators of employment agreement.
“We can enter into bilateral agreements but our terms should be clear and unequivocal. If there are violators to such agreements, we have to prioritize the welfare of our OFWs. These violators should be held accountable and liable without concession and pursuant to our laws and international conventions,” Tulfo said during a February 8 senate inquiry.
During the senate inquiry, Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) Undersecretary Maria Anthonette Allones said first-time or newly-hired household workers bound for Kuwait will now be offered alternative jobs in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Migrant groups were not sold on the deployment ban, saying it would not conclusively address the problems of labor migration. They said imposing bans for an extended period of time might well lead to Filipinos, in their desperation to find work abroad, to resort to illegal means and become vulnerable to human trafficking.
“What about the Filipinos who are already deployed? Are any actions being taken to ensure that they are protected and will not face the same fate as Julleebee and the others?” Migrante’s Concepcion said.
Apart from the risk of being abused, Filipino women face serious legal problems working as domestic workers in the Middle East. Those who managed to find new employers have to live and work illegally because their work visas remained tied to their original sponsors. Others have to work without legal documents such as their passports and identity cards because these documents were taken by their previous employers.
“These problems cannot be resolved with a deployment ban. The Philippine government has imposed bans many times before, but lifted them soon after when the particular cases of abuse or murder had been resolved by the courts and the perpetrators punished by death penalty or long-term imprisonment. When the deployment restarts, the abuses also start all over again,” said Concepcion.
United Methodist Pastor Rev Sol Villalon of the Anti-Human Trafficking and Migrant Ministry said the Philippine government continues to fail its responsibility to support OFWs.
“Whenever Filipino workers encountered difficulties abroad, it’s the migrant support groups who immediately come to their rescue,” she pointed out.
The pastor said in the last month, her team interviewed 10 women who had just returned from Kuwait.
“They all worked in Kuwait, and all are rape victims. None of them were assisted by the government or its agencies like the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). They received no therapy, and they practically had to beg for help so they could return home,” she said.
End the Labor Export Policy
According to the 2019 National Migration Survey, around 12 percent of all Filipino households “have or had an OFW member”. Another study revealed 73 percent of OFWs came from middle-income backgrounds, with most belonging to the lower-middle income bracket. Households that have a member working overseas relied on remittances for their income by as much as 25 percent.
If a family loses their major income earner, they will slide deeper into poverty. Their children will have to leave private school or stop schooling altogether. And if the family has a small business, it might have to close. It is precisely fears of this nature that keeps most Filipinos working overseas from returning home. Especially in the case of Filipino domestic helpers, they endure despite the many risks that come with working abroad.
“We cannot stop Filipinos from going abroad for work – they have every right to find ways to improve their own lives and to help their families. The least the government can do in return for the hard-earned remittances is to support them when they need help. The government should assert harder for the rights of Filipino workers – for just wages, for safe working conditions, for human treatment,” said Concepcion.
The migrant group is also calling for reforms, if not the abolition of the kafala system, which has meant total employer control over domestic workers and OFWs.
“Foreign domestic work and labor migration are both very unequal setups that bring with them great risks of abuse for migrant workers, especially in the case of those from countries like the Philippines that have uncaring labor brokerage governments,” Hernando, Migrante’s vice-president, said.
For her part, Concepcion said as long as the Philippine government and economy remain highly dependent on migrant Filipinos’ remittances, cases of abuse and even murder will continue.
“The government’s determination to continue its labor export policy is totally misguided. What it should do is implement immediate measures to protect our domestic workers and OFWs abroad and long-term measures to generate decent jobs in the Philippines,” she said.
“We need to end the government’s Labor Export Program and instead ensure that more jobs are created at home. Filipinos won’t have to leave the country and their families to risk their lives abroad if they have gainful and secure employment here.”
Top photo credit: iStock/ lucky-sky